Rouhani’s rooster tail

Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, is back in Tehran after an all-smiles visit to the United Nations in New York.

After eight years of the incendiary Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the genial Rouhani has sparked hopes across the West that a true moderate finally runs Iran. However, we must not judge Rouhani by his smile or by our desires. To borrow from a Persian apologue: We should see whether a rooster’s tail protrudes from underneath the new president’s cloak.

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“We can arrive at a framework to manage our differences,” Rouhani told the assembled world leaders. Then, as he dashed to Kennedy Airport, he took a call from U.S. President Barack Obama. It was the first-ever direct contact between leaders of the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

This followed some promising moves back home during the seven weeks since his inauguration. The new president shifted responsibility for nuclear negotiations from the hard-line Supreme National Security Council to the apparently more moderate Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Rouhani even tweeted Rosh Hashanah greetings to “all Jews.”

Does all this amount to a real change in Iran? Or is it a clever ploy to get the West to ease painful economic sanctions and buy more time for the Islamic Republic’s nuclear weapons program? The West has been deceived by the apparent reasonableness of Iran’s presidents in the past.

Many labeled Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) a “moderate,” but his professional assassins mowed down dissident Kurdish leaders in a German restaurant on Sept. 17, 1992. A couple of years later, he presided over the Jewish Community Center bombing in Buenos Aires, Argentina. And on July 25, 1996, Iran backed the Hezbollah bombing of Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 U.S. service members and wounded hundreds.

After Rafsanjani’s mayhem, the West anointed his successor, Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), a “moderate.” Nevertheless, the so-called “chain murder” of Iranian intellectuals begun by Rafsanjani continued. Then in 1999, students at Tehran University were attacked by the paramilitary Basij. Many were hurled to their deaths from the upper stories of their dormitories. Khatami told the Basij forces that it was necessary to act above the law in such cases.

Today, looking back at Rouhani’s career, there is ample reason for the West to calibrate its conception of the new president. As a direct representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he was implicated in the Buenos Aires and Khobar Towers terrorist attacks.

In light of Rouhani’s record and Iran’s recent history — the Islamic republic began with American diplomats taken hostage — all the speeches, interviews and tweets ring hollow unless words are put into action.

Home from New York, Rouhani must now prove himself serious. Our primary objective is to ensure that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons or the capability to produce them quickly. Iran says it will present a plan at its Oct. 15-16 Geneva meeting with permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany, the P5+1. That plan must contain an unequivocal commitment to bring Iran into compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, including its additional protocol that affords U.N. inspectors the access needed to assess Iranian nuclear activities. 

A good accompanying, confidence-building measure would be halting construction at the Arak heavy water reactor. This could easily be observed by satellite monitoring, even before full access for inspectors is negotiated.

Although nuclear matters loom large, there is plenty more that Iran must do. Rouhani told the U.N. that Iran poses “absolutely no threat to the world.” Then, he must announce a halt to support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. Instead, he could offer direct humanitarian assistance to the needy in the Bekaa Valley or the Gaza Strip.

At the next available international venue, Rouhani might underscore Iran’s support for Muslims worldwide by telling Russian President Vladimir Putin that Iran is dissatisfied with his treatment of Muslims, particularly Chechens. He could tell Chinese President Xi Jinping that Iran frowns upon the mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

At home, Rouhani could denounce “Death to America” chants at Friday prayers and work to reverse the mistreatment of women, trade unionists and political dissidents.

If what is outlined above is unrealistic, then we must not abandon our principles and label Rouhani a “moderate.” Rather we must bear in mind the significance of the rooster’s tail.

To conclude that Persian apologue, a farmer suspects a man of stealing his rooster. The thief swears on the saints that he knows nothing of the bird. Seeing feathers protruding from the man’s cloak, the farmer responds, “Should I believe your saints or the tail of the rooster?”

Kian is a former member of the board of directors of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, a former member of the White House Business Council and a former senior fellow for Global Public Policy at the United States Naval Postgraduate School. Woolsey is a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and chairs the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Smith is a senior fellow and Cyber Center director at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Washington and director of the Georgian Security Analysis Center in Tbilisi, Georgia.